I was Owen McAllister’s secretary, not his wife. The fact that I loved him didn’t change that. The fact that he already had a wife—an inappropriate, stupid wife, but still a legal spouse––made it even worse. But one morning in October 1950 I walked into Owen’s office and found him alone and weeping at his desk. That didn’t change anything either, but it was a start.
I went in and locked the door. He glanced at me as I came around his desk to stand beside him. Owen was the chairman of the Department of Geology, Fremont College, Xenia, Ohio. Apart from a handshake on the day he interviewed me fourteen months ago, I had never touched him. Now, with a sheaf of correspondence clutched in one hand, I rested my other hand on his shoulder. “Owen?”
He had asked me months before to call him by his Christian name––an endearing request––and even then I was falling in love with him. Falling in love with his brilliant mind and his pure white hair and his thick shoulders under his Harris tweed jackets and his courtly way of speaking to me. Maureen, would this be a good time to take a letter? Maureen, could I trouble you to take my hat to the cleaners? I had never had such a considerate boss.
“Owen, what is it?” I studied his white collar where it pressed into the pink flesh of his neck. That Owen was a man of strong emotions, I had no doubt. But the energy that emanated from his six-foot frame was typically channeled into his workload: the textbook he was writing––Geology for Engineers––with its bold-ink and nearly illegible pages transcribed by me on a new Underwood typewriter; the talks he gave, in his beautiful baritone, at seminars and conferences; the students and scientists he trained. I supposed some of that energy was also channeled toward his shallow wife, Jeanette, but she never seemed to notice.
“Forgive me.” He took a white handkerchief from his jacket pocket. “I’m an old fool.” Owen often called himself “old,” laughing ruefully when he said it, but he was only fifty. I was thirty-five. I wasn’t certain of his wife Jeanette’s age. She was always cleverly made up and costumed and coifed in order to look practically twenty or twenty-one, but I imagined she was close to thirty.
“Owen, how can I help you?” I took dictation at 130 words per minute, typed at 100, maintained a Variadex file system in perfect order, kept his calendar, answered his telephone, and arranged his travel. But I was prepared to go well beyond the boundaries of my job to help Owen.
“It’s Jeanette,” he said, wiping his eyes.
“Is she ill?” I knew she wasn’t. I had seen her the day before when she breezed past my desk in a brown velvet hat with a veil, deigning to say Hello, Maureen, trailing Tabu and condescension as she pushed into Owen’s office. They had been married for three years. I imagined the marriage had allowed Jeanette to hurdle several social strata in one leap––away from the shop-girl, Midnight-In-Paris, cut-on-the-bias existence she seemed to spring from and into the faculty-tea, DeSoto-and-fur-coat life she currently enjoyed. I saw her as a fake, a rhinestone ring in a Tiffany box.
“No, not ill.” Owen straightened his back, tucked the handkerchief away and reached for the stack of correspondence, which I had placed on his desk. He seemed prepared to continue with the morning’s tasks, but, just as suddenly, a fresh wave of sobs overcame him. I was still standing next to his chair, and he clasped me about the waist and pressed his face into the placket of my freshly ironed pin-tucked blouse. I had dreamt of his embrace, but never in circumstances such as these. “She’s…Jeanette’s… different,” he said, and I felt his moist breath where it penetrated the pin-tucks and warmed my skin. “I fear I may be losing her.”
These words produced a storm in my heart and an image in my mind of walking with Owen under the cliffs at Scourie in Scotland where he had done so much research. How many times had I typed the details of the famous rock formations along that coast? Like a schoolgirl, I had often imagined myself there with him.
“Please let me help you.” I put my hands on his beautiful white hair and cradled his head beneath my breasts.
The doorknob rattled. Then a sharp knock. I had forgotten the door was locked, but thank God it was. We drew apart, startled and staring at one another. Again, Owen pulled out the handkerchief and wiped his eyes. He smiled weakly and motioned for me to open the door.
It was Philip Carstetter, the new professor in Chemical Engineering who was contributing some material to Owen’s book. He did not have an appointment, but then he never did. He clumped in with his cane. “Locked doors?” he said, laughing. “What’s going on?” He held a cloth-bound book in one hand and steadied all his weight against his stick with the other.
He was ten years younger than Owen, but he had smashed up his leg in the war. He was a bombardier and his plane crash-landed on a mission over North Africa. I felt he quite overplayed the part of the world-weary hero, with his unruly black Irish hair always pushed to one side of his forehead and his tie askew and his suits rumpled.
“What have you got for me?” Owen said. After sobbing into my midsection moments earlier, he managed to revert rather admirably to his grand-professor voice.
Philip Carstetter held the book aloft, a preacher waving a Bible. “Calcination!” he called out. “Cement! Limestone!”
“Excellent.” Owen rubbed his hands together and reached for the book. “You are a life-saver, Carstetter.”
I left them and returned to my desk and the afternoon’s tasks.
2. Philip Carstetter
Maybe I thrive on anger, maybe that’s it. All I know is when a woman makes me mad I tend to fall in love with her. And Jeanette McAllister made me furious. I met her last summer when I first got to this jerkwater campus. Owen hosted an endless, bottomless, worthless weekend forum for a geologist visiting from Germany. A real blowhard. I didn’t hesitate to tell him I knew his people well: they shot my ship out from under me seven years ago, and I’d like to thank Rommel and his pals personally for this. I stabbed my cane in his direction. That meant I didn’t have to speak with the German geologist for the next two days.
But Jeanette. Jeanette was a different story. She sashayed up to me at the drinks party and stuck her hand out and said, “Hi, I’m Jeanette, the tramp who landed Owen McAllister. Who the hell are you?”
She always looked soft. She always wore fur and cashmere and pale wool, and underneath, silk and satin––yes, I finally did get underneath all the layers––but Jeanette was really tempered steel. She knew what she wanted and she went out and got it. That made me furious, which, as I said, made me love her. It was either love or something more violent. Can love be violent? Maybe the war screwed me up. What the hell, I liked pretending the world owed me something because my leg was shattered and I spent twelve days in a tent in Tripoli where they were short on morphine and long on flies. But I came through it; I even stopped minding the cane when I saw how women were drawn to it.
Not that things clicked right away with Jeanette. She always said: “I’m a gold digger, Phil, but I’m a faithful gold digger.” She didn’t really want to fool around or get involved or leave Owen. She said, “You know what you need? You need a girl.” She offered to find me one.
The quacks at the VA told me to practice walking without the cane. I didn’t want to practice anything. I didn’t want to teach my damn classes with all those entitled pretty boys sitting there twiddling their thumbs. I didn’t want to find a nice girl and settle down. I wanted to grab Jeanette and run off somewhere and do loving, violent things to her and to hell with everybody else.
I needed my job not only for myself. My mother lived with me and depended upon me utterly. That evening, the evening after Owen embraced me and wept, I watched Mother pick the pearl onions one by one out of her creamed peas with the concentration of a jeweler sorting gems. Her iron-gray hair was set in curlers so tightly rolled that a ridge of skin puckered whitely across the top of her forehead. Her patience seemed as stretched as her scalp. She looked up from the peas and demanded, “What exactly is it you want, Maureen?”
I assumed this was a continuation of the only conversation we ever really had. She did not care what I wanted. Her real questions were: What will happen to me? And Why don’t we have more? More money, more furniture, more appliances, more security for her old age.
She had been as thrilled as I when I accepted the job with Owen. My previous job had been in a steno pool where I was surrounded by girls who made fun of me behind my back but were friendly enough when they needed me––Maureen, could you change this typewriter ribbon? Maureen, could you decipher my shorthand? Maureen, could you spell Philadelphia? Their letters were misfiled, their tab keys were jammed, and their erasures left holes. One Friday, without notice, I quit. My only satisfaction was the panic and chaos I imagined in the wake of my departure. Mother did not partake of my triumph. “What if we starve?” she had asked.
Father left when I was twelve. I grew up with Mother telling me I was plain, I was pathetic, I was not marriage material and I should have something to fall back on. So I completed a two-year course at Hartley School for the Secretary and worked my way with no help from anyone through file clerk and steno pool jobs to the position of Personal Secretary to Professor and Departmental Chairman Owen McAllister. Still, Mother wanted more.
Now, after years of not-marriage-material talk, she had begun to imply I should be landing a husband. She had even hinted that I should try to get Owen away from Jeanette. It troubled me that her venal wishes should somehow coincide with the secret dreams I had about Owen––dreams I had no intention of acting upon until that day, when his tearful confessions made me think there was a chance. Was Jeanette having an affair? Could I prove it to Owen? End his agony, after which he would turn to me? Owen would be traveling to Chicago that weekend. Perhaps I could visit Jeanette and learn something further.
4. Jeanette McAllister
Philip was with me that evening, the evening Maureen showed up pretending to be “on her way to a dinner engagement.” She looked pathetic. A melted green Hubbard squash of a hat and a silly cloth coat the color of spoiled chocolate pudding. She announced quite loudly that she had promised Owen she would “drop off some pages.” That meant typed pages for his book––the endless, unreadable book he worked on––and it was true, she had brought typed drafts to our home before. Now she brandished a brown envelope as if it contained vital wartime secrets. “I told him I would bring this by,” she chirped.
I felt certain she had some ulterior motive––bringing pages on a Saturday evening?––and I was intrigued. Was she spying on me? I decided to give her an eyeful and invited her in.
“You know Philip, of course,” I said.
When Maureen discovered Philip Carstetter standing by our fireplace with a scotch and soda in his hand, she turned as gray as her ugly pocketbook. I pressed her to stay for a drink. “Owen is in Chicago,” I said. “But then you knew that.”
“Yes.” Maureen tried to sit down, remove her coat, remove her gloves, and hold onto her envelope and pocketbook all at the same time. “But,” she added, “you know how Owen is about his pages.”
“No,” I said. “How is Owen about his pages?” I put a scotch and water in front of her on the coffee table.
“I thought he might want this for Sunday night.” Maureen held the envelope in her lap. “When he returns.” She had just gotten everything settled and taken a sip of her drink when she looked at her watch and said, “I’m almost late for my dinner engagement.”
I lit a cigarette. “Who is your dinner date?” I asked, all curiosity.
“Just a friend.” The scotch was making her neck flush.
I leaned in. “A new beau?”
Maureen put her glass down. She began to reverse the process, gathering up her gloves and pocketbook. “I’m a trifle old for a new beau, don’t you think?”
“One is never too old to fall in love,” I said. “Don’t you agree, Philip?”
Phillip looked annoyed. When Maureen had rung the doorbell, Philip had been about to kiss me. We had kissed perhaps three times before that night––furtive kisses in a hallway or a taxicab––but Philip managed more passion in one kiss than poor Owen had mustered in three years. Philip drained his glass. “That is true,” he said, warming to my game. “Love can strike at any age. But Maureen is perhaps more dedicated to her work.”
“Oh, Maureen’s a professional little gatekeeper all right,” I said. “Sometimes I can’t see Owen myself unless I have the proper hall pass.”
Philip leaned on his cane with one hand and poured fresh scotch with the other. “Owen and Maureen had their heads together behind locked doors the other day,” he added.
Locked doors? I hadn’t heard about that one, but it was useful information. “That’s because Maureen loves my husband,” I said.
Philip pretended to ponder the idea. “No, Jeanette, I believe Maureen loves her Underwood typewriter. I’ve watched her hands on the keys and it’s true love.”
Maureen stood up. “I’ll be late if I don’t leave now.” Her lips were so white that I knew we had gone too far but I couldn’t resist one last question. “So which is it, Maureen? Owen or the Underwood?”
“I’m sorry I interrupted your evening.” She picked up her coat and the envelope and started for the door.
“Aren’t you going to leave that?” I pointed at the envelope.
She thrust it toward me and I took it.
When she left, Philip let his cane clatter to the parquet floor and grabbed me by both arms. I looked into his eyes and tried to understand what I saw there, in that mix of fury and love. I tried to understand why women fall for a man with a limp. Is it the feeling that a flaw makes a man more a woman’s equal?
Philip and I were already equal. Our backgrounds were the same. No money, hopeless parents, trash jobs. But Philip had gotten scholarships and an education. He joined up right after Pearl Harbor even though he was almost too old and was in graduate school, doing vital work. When he came back from North Africa, he wrote some doozy of a dissertation on the Hydraulicity of Limestone and got himself a professorship. All this, while I was sewing my own black cocktail dresses at the YWCA, buying fake pearls, and crashing parties where I could meet well-heeled men. Men like Owen McAllister. And I had gotten what I wanted. A husband who had money, a career, a pension, and no wandering eye. Then Philip showed up.
Monday morning as I took the cover off the Underwood, my stomach still roiled over Jeanette and Philip and the events of Saturday night. Everything about me––my livelihood, my professionalism, my respect for Owen––was hilarious to them.
I rolled in a piece of stationery and began typing Owen’s agenda for the day. But the ribbon was worn, so I took a fresh one from my bottom desk drawer and bent over the gleaming, black Underwood thinking it was true, I loved it, how solid it felt. I wheeled the old ribbon to one side and took the spools off.
Maybe they would stop laughing when I told Owen that his fears were well grounded and the interloper was his trusted colleague Philip Carstetter. Maybe that would silence them. I loosened the ribbon-leader from the new spool.
At that moment Owen arrived, still in his hat and coat. He was carrying the envelope, which I recognized at once.
“Very kind of you,” he said, holding it up. “Not necessary, but thank you.”
“I thought you might like to see it.” I could feel my face grow hot.
He took off his hat and hooked it on the coat tree. “Jeanette tells me you have a new beau.”
I was confused. Then I remembered Jeanette’s insistence that I had some sort of romantic date, even though I had denied it clearly enough.
“Philip Carstetter was there,” I blurted. “With Jeanette.”
Owen unbuttoned his coat. “She mentioned it.” He pressed his lips together as if to keep from saying more.
Of course Jeanette would mention it. She wouldn’t wait for me to tell him. What a fool I was. I had no proof of anything. I tried to hook the end of the new ribbon into the slot on the empty spool, a task I had performed a hundred times, but my hands were shaking and I could not do it.
Owen watched me. “Maureen, are you all right?”
I was smearing my hands with ribbon ink, something I usually managed to avoid. Then the new, full spool slipped from my fingers, dropped to my desk, rolled off and across the pine floor, unraveling yards of thin black ribbon as it went. I fell to my knees to gather it. Owen knelt across from me, trying to help.
“No, I can do it.” My voice came out in a furious cry, shocking me. I scooped ribbon with both hands, blackening them. “I can do it,” I said again. I was weeping, but dared not put my soiled hands to my face. I must have looked an utter fright, kneeling there with my face wet and my hands black, trying to control my twisting mouth.
“Maureen.” Owen put his hands on my shoulders. The beautiful weight of his warm hands. “What is it?”
“Don’t you understand?” I said. “Philip was there. You were right. You were right about Jeanette.”
He let go. For a wild moment I wanted to grab his hands and put them back on my shoulders. But my hands were full of typewriter ribbon and grimy with ink. Owen stood up.
“Let us not speak of Philip Carstetter,” he said. “All right?” He took his coat off and went to the coat tree and hung it up. He walked into his office and closed the door. I found the empty spool and began slowly winding the ribbon back on. It twisted about hopelessly. I would have to throw away a perfectly good, unused ribbon.
6. Owen McAllister
Work on the book has been slow going. The publisher sends letters quizzing me as if I were a grad student begging for thesis approval. Why isn’t there more on the magnesium and titanium compounds in clay? Aren’t most industries changing their requirements for siliceous materials in fireclay? What is the future of lime concrete?
I’m not in the business of predicting the future. If that makes me a throwback, then so be it. My doddering-codger status is already well known. Indeed, it provoked tittering behind my back when I married Jeanette three years ago. People find it amusing enough when a life-long bachelor decides to marry––as if he won’t be capable of making coffee for two or will blanch at the sight of ladies’ panties on the bathroom doorknob or, worse, won’t know that they are ladies’ panties––but they find it even more amusing when his bride is as young and vibrant as Jeanette.
People don’t understand that a man falls in love with what he does not possess. Jeanette is bold. Impetuous. That is why I love her. Why would I want someone as reticent and plodding as I? I have feared losing her from the day we married, and perhaps now it is coming to pass.
Philip Carstetter. I liked the man straight off, and he has been a godsend on the book. Extensive fieldwork with limestone. Much more practical experience with engineering applications, including the nitpicky siliceous materials the publisher natters on about. And Philip offered up his research and papers and books and experience to me, claiming he wanted only simple attribution. Now I must ask myself: was this because of Jeanette? Jeanette says no. Jeanette claims she is helping Philip “find a wife.” Now this––Maureen almost hysterical. Jeanette says Maureen is in love with me, but that is preposterous.
7. Philip Carstetter
That day we met––at the forum for the blowhard German––Jeanette stared at my cane, pointed, and said, “What happened to you?” I gave her the bullshit story about crash landing, but later, the first time she came up to my place, I told her the truth. I had never confessed it to anyone.
She didn’t care that my apartment was at the end of a bus line where all the drunks got off and wove their way down the sidewalk, asking for nickels and trailing their shoelaces. She did say, “Phil, on your salary? You don’t have to live here. Why do you?”
“I like the neighbors,” I said. She laughed. She laughed a lot, but she still wouldn’t sleep with me, at least not that night. Not for months.
But that night I told her. Yes, I was in North Africa and yes, I was a bombardier on B-25s, but no, I did not receive my wound in a “crash landing.” I would have if I hadn’t been the only coward to bail out of a plane that did crash land. Everybody survived, thanks to the show-off, Princeton-grad of a pilot, who took the ship down in the desert without any landing gear. My chute opened fine, but I came in crooked and lay cringing like the coward I was for 36 hours in the dirt with a shattered leg before the search party found me.
Jeanette had a drink in her hand and her bare feet on my footstool and she put her head back and laughed that sexy laugh again and said, “Hell, I would’ve been right behind you.” She didn’t care what anybody thought. She said, “As long as we’re confessing secrets…” and lit a cigarette.
She told me she had, more than once, done it for money. “That’s how desperate I was,” she said, and in two seconds she went from laughing to crying. “My mother and dad had kicked me out,” she said. “What was I going to do? I was seventeen. I was nothing. I never told Owen.”
So––Jeanette and I––we knew all about each other.
8. Owen McAllister
Maureen fought and won all the battles with the publisher. She pushed everything through. She edited manuscripts until two a.m. sometimes. She arranged the contracts. She arranged the speaking engagements. She protected me from petty details. She saved the book and I suppose she saved me. Swooping in when Jeanette left, making me eat the vile soup her mother had made, fluffing my pillows (I was ill for a while), washing my underwear and cutting my hair. Certainly Jeanette never would have done what Maureen did.
We are on the SS America bound for Scourie on our honeymoon. Maureen claimed she wanted to see it ever since she read my description of the famous gneiss outcroppings on the Scottish coast. I can’t imagine Jeanette ever being interested in Precambrian rocks, or any rocks. She used to joke that diamonds were the rocks she liked. I suppose it is a good thing for a man’s wife to take an interest in his work.
Maureen’s mother will live with us. I feared she would want to come to Scotland too, but no. She was overjoyed to stay in my house and boss the maid about. Jeanette and Carstetter are in that ridiculous apartment of his. And he left the university. Maybe they are happy.
9. Maureen McAllister
The sky here is pearl-gray-blue and close, misted with sea spray and the warm damp of the Gulf Stream. When you love someone, you notice things like the color of the sky. You notice every sea-softened, egg-sized rock on the beach and every slate-roofed cottage with its black-framed windows. You even do foolish things like go in the Scourie village kirk and say a prayer of thanks.
Pebbled pathways have taken us up and down this part of the coast. From the higher vantage points we view all the little sea lochs, ringed with islands that look like sleeping beasts in the low-lying water. The islands and headlands are gray rock––this is the famous gneiss––that looks ancient and gnarled and pockmarked wherever green moss or black lichen does not fur the surface. At dusk, sky and rock merge into a single shade of cinder gray; hardness and softness becoming one ghost-like disappearance, something humans are not meant to decipher.
The gneiss in many places, as Owen is quick to point out, is thrust through with igneous rock in vertical pinkish slabs. Owen enjoys going on about the quartz-dolerite extruding itself into the much-harder Lewisian gneiss, but I prefer simply contemplating the vastness of time. Some of the outcroppings here match up with formations in Canada, showing that the two coastlines were once joined. To think that now the Atlantic Ocean stretches in all its restiveness north and west from here to North America in one blue-gray unbroken expanse.
Today we are walking a path that takes us close to the beach and the lapping water. Owen strides ahead of me, carrying a furled umbrella and a waterproof notebook. He keeps his head down and his shoulders hunched against the damp. I must remind him constantly to unhunch his shoulders. I carry my guidebook, noting plants and outcroppings as we go. The headland in front of us is Craig a’Mhail. Near my feet, slippery shore rock is wrapped in bladder wrack. I feel wrapped myself, enclosed in this landscape that seems at once welcoming and primeval, familiar and forbidding. A place where the very earth is breathing deeply, keeping its counsel, and speaking to me of endurance.
Andrea Lewis writes short stories and essays from her home on Vashon Island, Washington. Her work has appeared in Cutthroat, Catamaran Literary Reader, The MacGuffin, and many others. Two of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. More of her work is available at www.andrealewis.org
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I love typewriters, so that was a start. Then I saw a dedication in an old textbook where the author thanked his secretary for all the typescript pages and I wondered who she was.
Q: What does your writing space look like?
A: I sort of sit in a room-size circle of books and every once in while make a little clear space to put down a spiral notebook and write.
A: Q: What’s your writing process?
A lot of timed writing with a group, then coming home and saying “What does this mean?”
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?
A: One book I often pick up when stuck is Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. Fabulous sentences.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A story set in 1933 in Pie Town, New Mexico.